Design guidance for play spaces

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					Design guidance
for play spaces

Lindsey Houston, Roger Worthington, Paddy Harrop
March 2006
Introduction   This short guidance note sets out principles for developing
               play spaces on Forestry Commission land. Key elements
               of this process are forming a multi-disciplinary team and
               considering the needs of people who will use the space.
               Our aim is to create naturalistic play spaces that act as a
               springboard for children’s engagement with forests and
               woodlands as a whole. They should encourage children to
               explore the natural environment and to take part in active
               play where they have the opportunity to create their own
               play environments and activities.


               2       Introduction
               3       Design Process
               3       Play Spaces
               4       Design Principles
               6       Elements of Play
               6       Existing Play Structures
               8       Contacts

               Thanks to Tim Gill, Jason Maclean, Andrew Norris, Bridgette Hall and Tania Crocket in
               preparing this guidance.
                                                                                            Design guidance for play spaces. 3


                              The design and construction of play areas requires considerable thought and care over
                              siting, consultation with user groups (including children), design, the selection of a
                              suitable contractor and suppliers, and construction and safety. Auditing and

Process                       maintenance is required to ensure that all the relevant structural and safety protocols
                              are met and that the play provided is sufficiently stimulating and relevant.

                              Project Team:
                              – Good design is difficult to accomplish without establishing a project team that may
                                include the following people (depending on the scale of the scheme)
                                – Landscape Architect
                                – Civil Engineer
                                – Forester / District Forester
                                – Recreation Manager / Recreation Ranger
                                – Consultants
                                – Artist / Sculptor
                                – Children / Parents / Carers

                              1. Form project team	                           4. Design phase
                                 – All parties must understand how	              – Design
                                   their contribution fits in                    – Tender
                              2. Scope project                                   – Construction
                                 – Consultation                                  – Sign off job
                                 – Research                                   5. Monitoring and Evaluation
                                 – Analysis                                      – How is the place space used
                              3. Project plan                                    – Accident levelsa
                                 – Time line	                                    – Can it be improved
                                 – Create a brief

                              The thing that makes Forestry Commission play provision different from other providers
                              is that the sites are generally perceived as natural, wild and extensive. These
                              characteristics should therefore be reflected in the provision of play facilities.

Spaces                        Design:
                              – Play areas must be designed and constructed in response to the needs of users, this
                                includes parents and carers.
                              – Identify the unique interesting characteristics of the locality, the woodland site and the
                                play location (which may relate to its geography, geology, history or natural history)
                                and incorporate elements of these features in the play theme.
                              – Play areas should be seen as a springboard or way of encouraging people to explore
                                the forest as a play environment.
                              – Identify and use existing features rather than clear everything away to start with a
                                blank site.
                              – Use natural materials & water:
                                – Structures should, wherever possible be made of timber.
                                – Use bark, sand and pea gravel safety surfaces (See safety surfaces overleaf).
                                – Use pealed logs (preferably a durable timber like oak), tree stumps and boulders as
                                  informal play structures or to provide interesting seating.
Stirling Council play space
4 Design guidance for play spaces.

                                              – Loose materials are valuable play materials and should be included rather than
                                                cleared away (sand, bark, branches, brash, cones, leaves).
                                              – Avoid urbanisation by minimising use of plastic or powder coated steel.
                                              – Do not fall into the trap of going immediately to a supplier or catalogue.
                                            – Use or manufacture landform to create interesting topography or a sense of
                                            – Play areas should wherever possible include space for creative play, e.g. space to
                                              build dens.
                                            – Play should challenge children and allow for an element of risk.


                                            – The location of play space needs careful consideration. Locating spaces too near
                                              visitors’ centres and/or car parks can encourage visitors to spend all their time in one

                                   place and reduce their engagement with the rest of the forest. But locating spaces,
                                              especially those for younger children, too far from amenities will not be popular with
                                              users and may lead to low levels of use.
                                            – The ideal may be to create a number of spaces, including those suitable for younger
                                              children located close to amenities and those suitable for a broader age range
                                              located further away.

                                            – Wherever possible consultation should be carried out on the play area development.
                                            – Consultation should have an element of involvement in construction, e.g. workshops
                                              with an artist.

                                            – The access needs of all users should be considered. Usually clever design can allow
                                              access for most disabilities, but it is not expected that every component of every
                                              environment is fully accessible to all. However, there should always be some
                                              provision made for people with differing abilities.
                                            – Careful selection of dual use equipment, the use of ramps, ropes for pulling and
                                              double slides will provide equipment with play value for children with a wide range of
Children give their views at Moors Valley
                                            Safety Surfaces:
                                            – Safety surfaces are intended to prevent serious accidents and head injuries and are
                                              only needed where there is movement or danger of fall. Obviously not including
                                              moving parts or fall negates the need for a safety surface.
                                            – Bark, sand and pea gravel should be used rather than rubber matting.
                                            – Rubber mesh matting with grass is only acceptable on a low-use site with a good
                                              grass sward.

                                            – Earth banks and mounds are ideal for climbing, sliding and hiding games.
                                            – Topography can allow play structures to sit well in the landscape and reduce or
                                              remove the need for safety surfacing.
                                                                                   Design guidance for play spaces. 5

                        Vegetation Management:
                        – Vegetation should be retained and managed to create a ‘wild’ environment, this will
                          usually entail managing vegetation less frequently say 2 or 3 times in the year.
                          Deliberately creating enclosure by vegetation management should not immediately be
                          regarded as a risk for anti-social behaviour.
                        – Vegetation can also be used very effectively in the creation of the play elements (woven
                          willow structures, planted ‘dens’, fruit trees and bushes, mazes, hiding games etc.).

Vegetation Management   Natural Features:
                        – The play area / forest boundary should generally be blurred to enable children to
                          gradually extend their range as they become familiar and comfortable with the site.
                        – Any existing natural feature on the site that could be used for play should be
                          incorporated into the play space rather than removed.
                        – Sand is a valuable therapeutic play tool.

                        Water & Mud:
                        – Water is a valuable play environment and should be incorporated safely wherever
                          possible. Small pools, puddles and muddy areas will be used by children for play.
                        – Running water should be considered if possible.

Water & Mud
                        Open space:
                        – If possible site the space near existing grassed open space, or create open space near
                          the play space, to allow for informal sport and ball games and other activities that need
                          an expanse of open space.

                        Fencing & Seating:
                        – Do not use fencing unless there is a genuine danger (e.g. a road). Instead use
                          mounding, and vegetation to create a sense of enclosure. Any fencing should be
                          designed to suit the location; natural materials should be considered e.g. hurdles.
                        – Play areas should include seating for children and young people, which could also
                          double as play equipment.
                        – Seating should also be provided for adults inside the play environment rather than
                          outside to encourage parents to engage in their children’s play.
Fencing & Seating
                        – Signage should be kept to a minimum, should first be welcoming and encourage
                          people to use the site and equipment, and should be designed in as part of the play

                        Regulations / Guidance:
                        – The normal procedures for built structures should apply. Construction Design &
                          Management (CDM) regulations, sustainable procurement (e.g. FSC certified timber) and
                          timber treatment guidelines (not CCA).
                        – European play standards (EN1176 & EN1177), should be considered.
                        – Fall heights should meet the current standards.
                        – Disability Discrimination Act requires us to make play spaces accessible to as many
Signage                   children as possible.
6 Design guidance for play spaces.

Elements of
                                          When designing a place space it is important to consider the sort of challenge and
                                          activity that children may want to take part in. Some elements of play activity are listed
                                          below and where possible should be included in any play space.

play                                      Activities
                                          – Construction and destruction (eg dens, dams)
                                          – Creative play with sand, mud and other loose materials
                                          – Physical games and informal sport (chase games, hide-and-seek, ball games,
                                            throwing/catching games)
                                          – Exploring nature and the elements
                                          – Social interaction or ‘hanging out’
                                          – Locomotor play, including:
                                            – Balancing
                                            – Swinging
                                            – Sliding
                                            – Climbing
                                            – Hiding
                                            – Challenge

                                          Many sites have existing play equipment and structures that visitors value, for the play
                                          opportunities they offer and for their familiarity. Careful thought should be given before
                                          they are removed, as their disappearance may be seen in a negative light.

play                                      Visitor centre sites in particular often make use of specially-commissioned timber play
                                          sculptures built by Andy Frost on a nature theme: Rosliston’s owl, Grizedale’s vast lizard,
structures                                Alice Holt’s Woodpecker tree, the play trail at Moors Valley. These often striking
                                          constructions have an iconic quality that helps give sites an identity, and they clearly act
                                          as a big draw for both adults and children.

                                          These bespoke structures are thus a valuable component of sites. But on their own
                                          they are unlikely to be the best way to deliver the kind of play opportunities the
                                          Forestry Commission should be aiming for. They are comparatively high-maintenance
                                          and not without their construction problems. Though not expensive compared to some
                                          conventional fixed equipment, they nonetheless represent a significant capital
                                          investment. Perhaps more importantly, they can work against the aim of engaging
                                          children with the woodlands in which they are placed, as they tend to offer a fairly
                                          narrow range of physical play activities that rarely make the most of the richness and
                                          variety of woodland settings. In some cases, such as the tree stump/viewing platforms
                                          at Wyre Forest and Alice Holt, they can become victims of their own charismatic appeal
                                          as in busy times children queue for long periods for the brief experience of climbing
                                          to the top.

Andy Frost’s play structures are iconic
but self-contained
                                                            Design guidance for play spaces. 7

There is a place for the spectacular in the Forestry Commission’s play spaces, but it is
best used with moderation and as a part of a much broader mix that is grounded in the
vision of the woodland itself as the ultimate play space. There may be scope for
‘decommissioning’ some structures as usable play equipment at the end of their useful
life, while keeping them as visual signifiers of the site, perhaps moved to another
location. It may even be worth thinking about knocking some structures down and
leaving them to decay slowly but visibly in an appropriate location not too far from their
original spot: a reminder and memorial for past users and, over time, a powerful
demonstration of the natural forces at work in woodland settings. As Grizedale’s
experience shows (Growing Adventure report, Tim Gill/ Forestry Commision 2006
Section 2) what replaces such structures is as important a question as what happens to
them. In both cases, some kind of public input would be very valuable to generate
ideas and test proposals.
           Forest Enterprise
           340 Bristol Business Park Coldharbour Lane Bristol BS16 1EJ
           Tel 0117 906 6000

           For more information on this guidance note go to:

           For more information on the Forestry Commission look up

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